John Prine died yesterday of COVID-19. I’d heard about him being put on a ventilator and being in critical condition, so I was expecting it to happen. Nevertheless, news his death shook me up badly.
I discovered Prine’s music in grad school. I read about his song “Sam Stone” while researching a paper on anti-war songs. I found a copy of the lyrics. They moved me and I started looking for his music. Chain record stores had nothing. I scoured independent stores in Tampa and found a used copy of German Afternoons on CD.
If it had been vinyl, I would have worn it out in a week. At the time, I played guitar at coffee house open-mic nights. I started incorporating songs from the album into my sets–mainly “Paradise” and “If She Were You.” They never failed to please. Later, I found more of his music. The lyrics to “Sam Stone” were poignant. Hearing him perform it knocked me down. “Angel from Montgomery” would get stuck in my head for days every time I heard it. And I think that “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” should be mandatory listening.
I haven’t played my guitar in so long that the callouses on my fingertips have faded to nothing. But I still have the guitar I used to play at those open mic nights. Tonight I’m going to get it out, and I’m going to play “Paradise” as best as I can, and I’m probably going to cry all the way through it.
John Prine was never as famous as the musicians he inspired and influenced, but his songs were honest, and the world was a better place with him as a part of it.
May he rest in peace.
(Photo by ANNI GUPTA on Unsplash)
“The Apology” was inspired by the song, “Cheap Whiskey,” on Martina McBride’s debut album. The song is about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism having driven away “the light of his life.” I wanted to explore what might happen if he decided to apologize, and discovered that the apology didn’t make anything better.
In the first draft, there wasn’t much more to it. I felt like it was thin as I wrote, so I introduced additional characters: four customers and the cook. It wasn’t terrible, as first drafts go, but my critique group suggested that I cut the other characters. Removing them made me realize how thin the characterization was, especially of Margo, and that gave me a clearer vision of the story.
Margo, especially, was little more than a cardboard cut-out. What was in her heart and mind when Nehemiah walked in? What would it do to her to hear an unwanted apology? Deepening my understanding of her also gave me fresh insight into Nehemiah. These insights changed the story for the better.
What I’ve learned from this is not to clutter my scenes and stories with extra characters. The other customers, Margo’s brother; I’d put them all in as scenery, basically, and then I’d felt obligated to give them something to do. They distracted me from the heart of the story. In my next first draft, I’ll be ruthless about keeping the scene focused on the only people who actually matter.
I was laid off due to a corporate restructuring this week. I’m sure I’ll have a new job very soon. Until then, I have some things I want to do:
1. Write at least 1,000 words per day. I’m about 30,000 words away from finishing my latest novel. It’s been slow going when I could only do 300 or so words each morning. I have an opportunity to wrap this story up. I need to seize it.
2. Interview people in preparation for my next novel. Another thing I haven’t had time for is research for the novel I have in mind for my next project. I’ve got people willing to help me and now I’ve got the time.
3. Play guitar. It’s been ages since I’ve had one my guitars out of the case.
4. Catch up on my reading. I have at least a dozen books just on soccer in my TBR stack.
5. Hit the gym every day. I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months going to the gym. I want to maintain those gains.
Naturally, I like all of the songs loaded onto my iPhone, but I’m not always in the mood for whatever gets shuffled into play on my daily commute. But there are some songs that I’ll never skip, no matter what mood I’m in. Here are five, in no particular order:
- “Sultans of Swing” – Dire Straits. I love the imagery of the song, I love Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar work and the bass line.
- “Seven Bridges Road” – The Eagles. Love the a cappella harmony that opens and closes the song.
- “The Boxer” – Simon & Garfunkle. Another great one for singing along in harmony, and the story is gripping.
- “I Gotta Feeling” – Black Eyed Peas. If I’m in a good mood, this matches it. If I’m in a bad mood, it lifts me up.
- “The Tide is High” – Blondie. The calypso rhythm, so atypical for Blondie, makes me want to get up and merengue.